My trip to Tasmania was booked before I even stepped foot in Australia. I’d been following several stunning Tasmanian Instagram accounts and reading about the natural beauty and terrific food movement in the island state long enough to know that I would be visiting. Without knowing much about actually traveling through Tassie, I booked a 6-day adventure from Sydney to Launceston and decided to sort out the details later. And now, as my brief #TassieTrip is winding down, I am realizing I should have stayed longer (and rented a car!).
Although my time in Tassie has flown by, I packed my days full of activities. With all that I’ve seen and done in Tasmania, I’ve chosen to break up my chronicling into three posts: Launceston & Hobart, Cradle Mountain, and Wineglass Bay. Three of my six days were planned via Tours Tasmania, a tour company which offers day trips as well as a combined three day tour to The a Big 3 (Cradle, Wineglass, Port Arthur). I booked the Big 3 for $360 AUD in total and experienced three very different days as well as viewed much of the state while en route to and from our destinations. It is a decision I will easily recommend to a fellow traveler, particularly one traveling solo like myself, as it is expensive to rent a car in Tasmania.
Tasmania is a truly beautiful state with much to offer. Although it makes up only about 2% of Australia’s landmass, Tassie’s ideal farming lands, unique plant and animal life, and varying geographical features are much more significant. For starters, Tassie contributes about 50% of Australia’s mountain ranges and, with large opium farms, accounts for 48% of the world’s medicine production.
Tasmania is mostly rural, with over half of the state’s population living in the two major cities of Hobart and Launceston. Driving through Tasmania provides beautiful views of its rolling hills, green acres filled with sheep, cows and horses grazing freely, and the occasional road sign for kangaroos and the iconic Tasmanian devils.
My travels led me through numerous small towns filled with dull-colored homes to blend in with their natural surroundings, and populations ranging from 400-1,000. These smaller towns are also trying to catch the eye of the 1 million annual visitors each year with potential draws such as town mural competitions and topiary collections. It’s difficult to compete with all the natural beauty of Tasmania but they’re trying.
Australia’s third oldest city, Launceston lies along the Tamar River in the north-central part of the state. Launceston is a quiet port city with a few big draws: Cataract Gorge, Boags Brewery, and the beginning of the Tamar Valley wine region.
- Cataract Gorge: Probably Launceston’s best attraction, this natural reserve offers walking and hiking trails, the world’s longest single span chairlift, a swimming pool, dams, and a suspension bridge named Alexandra (!). It’s incredibly peaceful in here and a short walk from city center. The walk to the First Basin takes about 45 minutes and is generally accessible for all ages. From here, there are options to continue on to more challenging and longer hikes, indulge in the cafe, jump in the public swimming pool, relax on the grassy knoll, or experience the chair lift ride across the basin.
- City Park: An oasis within the city, City Park was once the site for the home of Launceston’s first Governor. Today it is home to a different beast, Japanese Macaque Monkeys. Set up near the main entrance of the park, these monkeys can hold your interest for hours. Well, maybe not hours, but it is certainly interesting and almost eery watching these guys interact with one another, strikingly similar to the way we as humans interact. I stood and observed them for a while before peeling myself away to check out the rest of the park. City Park is the perfect city refuge; peaceful and quiet with only the sounds of wind passing through the trees. The park is well-manicured and also features a conservatory filled with green and purple ferns, orchids, and hanging moss.
- James Boags’ Brewery Tour: Tasmania is known for some of the purest water and cleanest air in the world, ingredients which are also useful when brewing beer. Established by a farthest and son duo in 1881, James Boag’s beer is popular among the locals. The brewery offers 90-minute tours around the facility, observing everything from the brewing tanks to the bottling lines. The tour concludes with a tasting of their beer and some cheese pairings to go with it. Recently spoiled by the exciting craft beer movement in the U.S., I was a little bored with the limited selection and classic flavors, although, to their credit, they certainly brew up some crisp and clean tasting beer.
Located along the Tamar River, just north of Launceston, is the Tamar Valley Wine Region, a top destination on my Tassie bucket list. I booked a half day tour to visit five of the boutique vineyards and sample their dry, cool climate wines at the cellar doors. One of the things I love about wine tasting in Oz is that the vineyards are very generous with their tastings. If a vineyard produces 15 types of red and white wines, you can try all 15 wines! Pacing is important in this setting!
Pinot Noir is the most popular wine of Tamar region, with Pinot Gris becoming increasingly popular as well. The vineyards produce everything from Chardonnay to Cabs and Merlot, with many also offering dessert wines and ciders as well. Each vineyard featured beautiful valley views as well as selections of local cheeses and fudge.
Australia’s second oldest city, Hobart is a seafood mecca with their harbor serving as the main focal point for the port city, the harbor with Mt Wellington as its glorious backdrop that is. Hobart is a bit more hip and lively compared to Launceston and serves as the gateway to many of the top tourist attractions including Wineglass Bay, Port Arthur, Richmond, and Bruny Island. I spent a day wandering Hobart’s streets, exploring the shops, and enjoying the fresh local ingredients featured in many of the restaurants and cafes.
- Salamanca Square – The setting for the increasingly popular Salamanca Markets every Saturday morning, the square is filled with crowded bars, specialty shops, and enticing restaurants. Definitely the place to go for after dinner drinks or an evening out with friends.
- Battery Point – Hobart’s oldest neighborhood, filled with colonial homes dating back to the 1800s. There’s a small stretch of restaurants and shops here but it’s mostly interesting to walk around admiring the Georgian architecture of the neighborhood.
My third and final day trip was to the historical colony of Port Arthur, the penal community for Australia’s repeat offenders. While it wasn’t my favorite of the three trips, I left with a lot of questions and thoughts swirling in my mind. Most of my bus ride back to Hobart was spent writing questions down to reflect upon later and share here.
Port Arthur is a beautiful community with colonial buildings, homes, and gardens. Perhaps the convicts did not see it the same way I did but there certainly are worse places to serve out a sentence or two.
Historians have done a great job preserving what’s left, restoring many buildings that were damaged by bush fires, and telling the individual stories of the men who served time there. Upon entry, you are handed a playing card which represents a particular convict. Visitors are instructed to use the card to find your way through an exhibit, unlocking the story of your convict and learning of their crimes, punishment, and sentence. I appreciated this “game” as it gave you a person to connect with, making their story come alive rather than only learning a few general and basic facts about life in Port Arthur.
Although only open from the 1830s to the 1870s, Port Arthur was significant for many reasons. One of which was the lasting contribution the convicts made in Australia, building everything from ships to roads and bridges. Port Arthur was also the first site in the world for a juvenile detention center. Boys as young as 9 could have been sentenced to time in Port Arthur. Officials decided to separate the boys from the influential men by sending them to a separate island across the harbor.
Additionally, Port Arthur tragically experienced a mass murder in 1996 when a man went on a killing spree both at the historic site and a nearby restaurant, murdering 35 people and injuring many more. This event was a tremendous shock to the quiet community and peaceful Tasmania as a whole. As a result, the Australian government responded by tightening their gun laws, making it difficult to obtain a gun at all. Today Australia continues to be a country with limited gun violence, unlike my homeland…
These three things struck a chord with me and promoted my afternoon of questioning and interest in discussion. I’m including some of my thinking below and would be interested in discussing, should any of you fellow readers be willing to engage.
- On the topic of convicts learning skills and trades: Why don’t we put convicts to work these days repairing roads, building, learning trades? We spend money on them rather than make money off them. Sure, prisoners can go to “school” or work the odd jobs in prison, but they don’t seem to be as valuable to society as they once were. When did this practice change and why?
- On the topic of juvenile detention: How did our juvenile detention system become what it is today? Started by the Brits in the beautiful setting of Port Arthur, younger convicts (who were convicted for lesser crimes like petty theft) were educated in their penitentiary with the intention of re-assimilating into society as productive citizens. What is our focus now? Is it successful? Productive? Are we actually protecting them for their adult influences outside of prison by keeping them there?
- On the topic of gun control: In 1996 a gun massacre took place here in Port Arthur. 35 people were killed in this quiet and peaceful part of Tasmania (characteristics of all of Tassie, really). Australia responded by tightening gun laws, taking guns away from citizens, making them difficult to obtain. The U.S. and Australia have similar histories, both coming from British rule, and yet America struggles to manage its gun problem. People have become almost numb to this type of crime in our country and the government continues to spout empty words about how we have to do something each time it happens again. What will it take to make a change? Do people really need guns? Access to them? We aren’t in colonial times anymore where a gun with hand-packed gun powder. We are no longer in those times and yet we keep our rules the same. Does the constitution actually adapt with our country or do we continue to be held back because of it? If it’s a living document then it can change. If we can make rulings in favor of something like black rights, women’s rights and gay marriage – all of which were unconstitutional during colonial times – why is gun control so difficult to interpret according to the needs of our time?
I don’t expect to find all the answers but my trip did get me thinking, enough so to share here. While these are heavy questions, they did not damper my day. Port Arthur is well worth the visit and deserves at least a full day to appreciate and explore.